Clive Davis, a kid from Brooklyn, makes his way through New York University and Harvard Law School on brains and ambition. He is hired by a New York law firm and impresses his bosses with his capacity for hard work. He is soon making good money, with the realistic expectation of making much more in the long run.
We’ve heard this story before. It is the up-from-the-working class success story of the second- and third-generation of Jewish immigrants who came to New York City to find a better life. But in the case of Mr. Davis, there is a twist. In 1960, at the age of 33, he became general counsel of Columbia Records. Although he had no special expertise in music, he was in show business, if only peripherally, and what’s more, with the classiest operation in town.
Goddard Lieberson, the head of Columbia at the time, was universally admired for giving the usually tacky recording industry a touch of class. Under his direction, Columbia had major hits with original-cast albums of Broadway shows and featured recordings by the New York Philharmonic, led by Leonard Bernstein. Even Columbia’s pop stars — Doris Day, Andy Williams, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett — were class acts.
But during the 1960s, just as Mr. Davis was settling in, the Beatles revolutionized pop music. So in June of 1967, by this time a key executive at the company, he went to the Monterey Pop Festival to find out what the new music was all about. Here is part of what he saw and heard:
“Her body seemed to vibrate with the modulations of her voice, which struck with equal impact whether she was wailing at the top of her lungs or delivering an intimate whisper. In the afternoon sun, she radiated a desperate sexual heat … she had a voice like no other — raspy, pleading, dominating, aggressive, vulnerable … she brought [the song] to an orgasmic close.”
The possessor of all these goodies was a young singer named Janis Joplin. Her lusty, savage, let-it-all-hang-out performance changed Mr. Davis‘ life. He had an epiphany: In the music business, class was out, crass was in. Orgasmic closes and vibrating modulations — or perhaps it is modulating vibrations — were the future.
Mr. Davis knew that popular music is ruthlessly Darwinian. The recording business is not about artistry or good taste or sophisticated lyrics or raising the cultural level of the masses. It is about the survival of the hippest. Rock music, red in tooth and claw, filled with often demonic energy, was the new pop species. Black Rock (the imposing CBS headquarters building) had to be united with (mostly) white rockers, and Clive Davis had to get with the scene, as they used to say. He let his sideburns grow. He bought velvet suits. He went to Studio 54. He was hip.
Mr. Davis‘ vivid description of his epiphany occurs on Page 67. The remaining 484 pages of text consist of exhaustively detailed summaries of his many triumphs. From Simon and Garfunkel to Kelly Clarkson, and from Bruce Springsteen to Alicia Keys, Mr. Davis was present at the creation of many successful careers.
I found two stories of particular interest: the spectacular artistic rise, sad personal decline and tragic early death of Whitney Houston, and the devastating effects of Mr. Davis‘ sudden firing by CBS, on what he says — and subsequent events seem to prove — were trumped-up charges of financial malfeasance.
The book’s major problem is that after you have read three or four of the stories of how Mr. Davis helped a singer or group, the next 15 or 20 begin to blur into incoherence because the story remains the same, with slight variations:
Clive Davis, a wise, patient, musically knowledgeable recording company executive discovers an artist and then guides him or her to success. He provides sage advice that the young artist at first rejects, and then, just in time, accepts. Result: The album goes gold (or platinum or double-platinum). The artist is properly grateful to Mr. Davis.
I have no reason to doubt any of this, but the same self-aggrandizing story, repeated dozens of times, does not make for compelling reading. Perhaps if Mr. Davis‘ career had been half as successful, his book might have been twice as good. Failure, after all, has its narrative charms.
Note: in the last few pages, Mr. Davis informs us that relatively late in life, he discovered he is bisexual. This disclosure seems to have been tacked on at the last minute to generate some pre-publication buzz, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the book. But, anyhow, thanks for sharing, Mr. Davis.
William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press, 2011).